UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Broken prisons: who's guilty?

Another week, another U-turn from the Government - this week on sentencing reform. Ken Clarke's plans to cut prison sentences by 50% in return for early guilty pleas. Ken was chasing cuts. Cameron - late in the day - saw the dangers in being seen to be soft on crime.

You have to feel some sympathy for Ken Clarke. He has to find massive, 23% savings in his Department's budget. The prison population was allowed to get out of control under Labour - soaring to 85,000 from 40,000 when Clarke was Home Secretary in the 1990s.

And the cost? A whopping £45,000 per year per prison place. More than a year's fees at Eton.

The prison population has to be brought down somehow. Yes, because there's no money left to keep locking people up at the current rate. But, more importantly, because the prison system in England and Wales is - frankly - broken.

Consider this. 50% of all prisoners reoffend within a year of leaving prison. No wonder the numbers are unsustainable.

The real story today - more than U-turns - is how our prisons have got so out of control. Yes, Labour created a pack of new offences that meant more people ended up in jail. But once offenders get to prison, they're enrolling into a college of crime where up to half of them will commit more crime once they're out.

I can't see how the Prison Service is not to blame for this. Politicians rightly get it in the neck when things go wrong and it's right that Ministers should be ultimately accountable to Parliament. They formulate the policy and ask the public servants - the prison officers, the experts - to implement those policies and to get on and design and deliver the public service in the most efficient and effective way they can.

And yet prisoners are re-offending in shocking numbers - to say nothing of the 50% of prisoners who are on drugs in prison. There has been a systemic mismanagement of the prison system in England and Wales for a very long time for things to have got this bad. More crime. More victims. More expensive prison places. More crime. The cycle of crime goes on...

Clarke's plans this week propose sensible steps for dealing with this. Payment by results - paying private sector prison providers for the number of offenders they put back on the straight and narrow makes sense. Prisons must become places of work, rehabilitation and reform - too many prisoners sit around bored out of their skulls. These are long-term fixes that the Government is right to implement.

The U-turn on halving sentences for guilty pleas has grabbed the headlines. But the guilty party - the Prison Service public service managers who have so consistently mismanaged our prisons for years - have got away with it.

They need to be held accountable.

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